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Still Life with Mixed Fruit by Robert Spear Dunning

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This painting depicts a bountiful assortment of fruit presented on a tabletop with an elaborate carved-edge molding and a highly polished surface in which the arrangement is mirrored. Dunning presents the fruit against a neutral background, in a counterbalanced group assembled around a large, luxurious cluster of green grapes, with each piece placed so that none repeats the position of another. The composition is bathed in warm colors and enhanced by the interplay of ambient light and shadow, with the glistening surfaces of various textures painted with the compelling accuracy that was a trademark of the artist.

Dunning first incorporated the open orange into his still life paintings of the 1860s and it was quickly copied by other artists of the Fall River School, most notably by his student Bryant Chapin (1859-1927), who is erroneously credited with the introduction. Dunning was the undisputed master at realistically – indeed, almost photographically – depicting the contrasting textures of the skin, pith, and juicy flesh of an orange, and his prodigious skill is evident in this work.

This painting has had an interesting journey. Painted in Dunning’s Fall River studio in 1882, it was contemporaneously acquired by a Rhode Island collector; it remained with that family until the third quarter of the twentieth century when a direct descendant had the painting shipped from Rhode Island to Australia. It returned to Fall River 140 years later, in 2022, when it was acquired at auction by the Fall River Historical Society.


  • In memory of Joan L. Borden, the gift of her husband.

Details of Painting

  • Artist : Robert Spear Dunning
  • Artist Details : 1829-1905
  • Genre : Still Life
  • Year : 1882
  • Material : Oil on Canvas
  • Dimension : 14" x 10"
  • Object ID# : 2022.58.1

About the Artist

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Robert Spear Dunning


Robert Spear Dunning (1829-1905), the founder of the Fall River School, is an artist best known for his opulent still life paintings of fruit, often arranged in elaborate serving pieces and habitually presented on a highly polished table with heavily carved edge. His oeuvre also included portraits of Fall River grandees, coastal marine paintings, and bucolic landscapes.

Dunning was born in Brunswick, Maine, in 1829, and at the age of five moved with his family to Fall River, Massachusetts, where he received his education in the public schools. He displayed a marked talent in drawing and painting when a child, but worked in a cotton mill and then spent three years at sea before beginning his formal studies in art.

In the late 1840s, he began the serious study of art as a student of James Roberts, a landscape painter, in East Thomaston, Maine. In 1849, he moved to New York City to focus on portrait and figure painting, studying for three years in the studio of Daniel Huntington (1816-1906), a noted specialist in those genres and a prominent figure in the New York art scene. Under Huntington’s tutelage, Dunning excelled, and, in 1850, entered his first painting in an exhibition at the American Art Union. The painting, entitled "The Grandfather’s Guide," depicted an aged blind man being led by a child, sold to a Nyack, New York collector.

The artist returned to Fall River in 1853, opened his first studio, and, in 1859, shared a space with fellow artist John E. Grouard (1824-1887), having formed the short-lived firm Grouard & Dunning. For many years, he shared a large studio with his close friend and former student, Franklin Harrison Miller (1843-1911), in a prime location in the grand Borden Block, a commercial structure on South Main Street. The space was a noted center for artists and art patrons who regularly gathered there. He also maintained a studio in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was well known in that capitol city’s art community, his paintings sought after by wealthy collectors. Dunning quickly attained a position at the forefront of American still life painters.

By 1865, he began to focus mainly on still life, but continued to paint portraits, which were commercially lucrative, in addition to marines and landscapes. The nineteenth century was the golden age of landscape painting in Europe and America; Dunning embraced this movement and produced beautifully rendered pastoral landscapes of exceptional quality, yet they are often overlooked – and inevitably overshadowed – by his still life compositions.

As a painter, Dunning was a brilliant craftsman, with an extremely precise glazing technique whereby he applied thin, transparent layers of oil paint over the main body color, resulting in extremely rich, lustrous hues of extraordinary depth. In this manner, he captured the waxy bloom of grape or plum, the velvety fuzz of peach, or crystalline droplets of dew on rose blossoms and leaves.

His compositions usually include a selection of choice objects – fine porcelain tableware, cut crystal, serving pieces of elaborate silver, and crisp linens – containing, or accompanying, the elegant arrangements of luscious fruit and flowers. A trademark of the artist was the inclusion of a ripe orange, opened to reveal its delicate, juicy interior, or a dish of honeycomb, with its hexagonal waxy cells dripping with thick, sweet syrup.

The compositions are usually presented on a table of rich, dark wood, with a deeply carved, elaborately edged molding, and a highly polished surface allowing for the deep mirror-like reflections in which the artist excelled. Dunning’s paintings, intended for an elite clientele, exhibit the wealth and optimism of the Victorian era. This style of painting was synonymous with the Fall River School.

The artist was a perfectionist in his work and could never be hurried; he rarely completed a commission on schedule and was never fully satisfied. He expected – and obtained – the finest specimens of fruit available in Fall River, procured from Clorite’s, the city’s leading fruit monger. If a choice bunch of grapes or a flawless peach was received, it was set aside and not offered for sale until Dunning made his daily visit to examine the fruit, selecting only the best as subjects for his still life paintings.

A stellar description of Dunning’s painting was written by his student and fellow Fall River School artist Bryant Chapin (1859-1927): “Rich, brilliant and glowing in color, gracious in line, well-balanced in composition and through all a subtle quality of tone hardly definable, yet a quality that goes to make them what they are – almost the ne plus ultra of still life painting.”

Due to Dunning’s prodigious talent and the considerable fame he garnered, Fall River became strongly associated with still-life painting; the artist was the founder of the Fall River School – that is, a group of artists, most of them his former students, painting in the same style.

Dunning gave private instruction in his studio, but always considered himself an artist, not a teacher, and treated his students accordingly. A rare glimpse into his methodology is provided by Fall River native Mary Lizzie Macomber (1861-1916), who studied with him for three years, beginning in 1880, later forging a successful career as a painter of religious and allegorical subjects in the Pre-Raphaelite style. According to Macomber, Dunning was an exacting taskmaster and expected that his students “use the finest Windsor & Newton’s canvas, paints, and vehicles … insisting, ‘economy in materials is a poor economy.’” A visual picture of her first art teacher was also furnished, he was:

One of the most genial of men, with a childlike nature ... working so conscientiously on his beautiful fruit pictures, with his flowing white hair appearing below the paper eye shade and the gray dressing gown with its red lining – like some Dutch master of long ago.

That geniality extended to his mother, Rebecca Dunning née Spear (1797-1880), who was said to have been his severest critic. If she detected something she “did not think was right” when looking at his work, she would take a brush and obliterate in seconds what had taken him hours to paint. Good natured, he would simply begin again.

Dunning has long been erroneously credited with founding the Fall River Evening Drawing School and that institution, and the term “the Fall River School,” – a group of artists working in the same style and in the same location – are often confused.

The Evening Drawing School came into being under the auspices of the Fall River School Department in 1870 due to a statute passed by the Massachusetts State Legislature titled An Act Related to Free Instruction in Drawing. The act mandated that drawing be taught as part of the public-school curriculum and “any city or town … of more than 10,000 inhabitants shall provide free instruction in Industrial and Mechanical drawing to persons over 15 in day or evening schools.”

In accordance, in the 1870-71 school year, the Fall River school department offered classes in mechanical drawing – of obvious value to an industrial city – but also added classes in freehand drawing, being one of the first cities in the Commonwealth to do so. The main purpose of the freehand classes was to provide instruction for teachers who were now required to include drawing in the day classes. It was not established to train professional artists.

It was not until the 1879-80 school year, eight years after its inception, that the Report of the Superintendent of the Public Schools included the freehand classes being taught by Dunning, who served as Principal, assisted by his friends John E. Grouard and Franklin H. Miller. Later, fellow Fall River artists Herbert Austin Fish (1855-1932) and Bryant Chapin joined the group, also giving instruction in freehand drawing. Thus, Dunning and his associates taught freehand drawing in the public evening school as employees of the Fall River School Department.

Dunning was a member of the National Academy of Design in New York, where his works were frequently shown. He exhibited his work at many prestigious galleries and exhibitions nationwide and was the recipient of numerous awards.

At the time of his death in 1905, it was stated, “as a painter of fruit that Mr. Dunning’s name will undoubtedly be placed among those of the great painters of his time. For a generation he has been acknowledged as a master among the fruit painters of not only this country but of the world.” Collectors took note. A few weeks after his death an article in the Fall River Daily Evening News, headed “Demand for Mr. Dunning’s Pictures” stated, “interest in his pictures have increased and prices have advanced rapidly. Some have doubled in value in a few weeks, though his paintings always commanded a good price.”

He was honored with a memorial exhibition held at the Fall River Public Library that included forty-six paintings, the vast majority loaned by wealthy collectors of that city, in addition to a selection of drawings and unfinished work.

Dunning’s paintings are represented in important public collections nationwide.

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